Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dogs of War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a standalone sci-fi novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky (whose science-fiction credentials include the superlative Children of Time, which we looked at very favourably last year).

It’s a book which explores a lot of interesting ideas, including the role of artificial intelligence in society, exactly what we define as humanity, the ethics of conflict resolution and the manufacturing of sentient biological life. But it does all of this through a variety of different perspectives, from civilian medical personnel to military bioforms, offering a personal view as an immediate and emotional underpinning to its exploration of these big ideas. It is one of the finest sci-fi novels I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a new book to read in the genre, it should probably be this one.

So, looking at it in detail, what’s it about? Well, the central character is Rex. Rex is a bioform, an artificially created life. We’re along for the ride in Rex’s head, and that head is one which marries sentience with different instincts to our own. Derived from canine stock, then bred for war and cybernetically integrated with weapon systems, Rex is extremely loyal to his Master, and extremely dangerous to those he’s told are the enemy. He works in a unit with other bioforms, each as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly deadly as the last. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the text is in giving the reader a great many non-human viewpoints to consider – from Rex’s canine loyalties and desire to help, to the combined consciousness of a cloud of weaponised bees, and the quietly murderous thoughts of a giant reptile. They’ve been given the ability to think, and to communicate with each other, within the bounds of their cybernetics, and each of them thinks differently, speaks differently, and reads differently on the page.

Unfortunately for Rex, his desire to do what his Master wants, indeed his almost inability to refuse, means that he may do some rather bad things. This throws up some exciting questions, first about the role that diminished actors could take in the commission of what might otherwise be war crimes, and about the responsibility and ethics that would come with the creation of new sentience. Actually, the lack of ethics is something more on the table here. At the same time, there’s an ongoing conversation about whether these bioforms, created in laboratories to fight others wars, are themselves actually people.  That particular thread rumbles in the background of the narrative; as a reader, it’s possible to walk alongside Rex as he begins to feel, if not more human, perhaps more independent – and as we begin to see him as something other than a weapon, as he is portrayed that way, so too does the wider context round bioform rights open up.

There’s a fair bit of action here, laced bloodily throughout the text. It’s never glorified, and the consequences are shown, with a stark light that lets the reader form their own opions on the conflict. At the same time, the combat periods are kinetic, fast paced scenes with real impact – and the moments which explore what’s left behind are thoughtful and affecting without being mawkish. I have to admit, Rex’s unit working together is an awesome sight – and also one which is terrible. Kudos to the story for giving glimpses of both.

There’s other stuff in here too; the narrative is layered through with complex questions. If Rex and his bioform colleagues are alive, what does that say about artificial intelligences, also in their infancy in this near-future world? If bioforms are awarded personhood, how does society deal with people who are always heavily armed or actively designed to kill? Seeing that the conflicts Rex has, to be someone, to decide whether he actually wants to be anything other than a follower of his Master’s voice – well, they’re beautifully, honestly portrayed, and a very difficult read. At the same time, they ring true, evoking the US civil rights movement, or the institutional struggles of South Africa. This is a book which is trying to look at big issues in a future context, and also tell us something about humanity, and I think it succeeds.

Rex’s personal story – well, by the end of the book, listening to his voice, his thoughts, his feelings, and knowing has sacrifices, I’d been moved to tears several times. Though the story approaches and explores these grand ideas, and does so with complexity and nuance, it’s not afraid to give us stakes in the game. This isn’t a dry, academic exploration of social changes. It’s raw and bloody and personal – and fantastic.

Once again: this is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year, perfectly blending larger themes and big ideas together with a personal, emotional story; it’s a feast for the mind at the same time that it wrings out the heart, and I can’t recommend it enough – go buy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shadowblack - Sebastien De Castell

Shadowblack is the second of Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellslinger’ series. The first, a cunning blend of coming of age tale, fantasy and weird western, was very enjoyable – so I had high hopes for this one too. Shadowblack re-emphasises a lot of the good things about the first volume, including the sharp banter, the well observed, convincing characterisation, and the world I wanted to see more of, then adds some new narrative spices of its own.

Where the first book was set in an oasis of magic users, and centred around Kellen, an adolescent coming rapidly to terms with the fact that he didn’t actually have any magic to speak of, we, along with Kellen, are now outside that oasis, thrust into the wider world and wondering what on earth happens next. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Badlands outside of the oasis are, well, not very nice. There’s radiating heat, scrubby brushland, and rather a lot of horse manure. It’s a barren land with a big sky; to me it evokes a start, Western-style vista. De Castell draws out the difficult beauty of these Badlands in the tribulations of his protagonist – struggling against an uncaring space, but one with a beauty of its own, means that geography helps shape character.

If the Badlands, and the fractured region of which they’re a part aren’t enough, then there’s the Academy. A thriving university town, with students from the richest and most influential of this world.  If it feels a little parochial in some ways, that just serves to provide a patina of authenticity to the experience.  If the Badlands feel like the edge of the world, then the thriving, hopeful town in which the Academy sits is its crowning jewel and greatest contrast. It’s to De Castell’s credit that he makes both environs feel alive.

The unlikely trio from the first book are back. I have to admit that for me the star of the show is always Reichis, the squirrel cat. He’s a few pounds of fur, sharp teeth and a sharper attitude. Reichis has a degree of focus which I suspect the other characters envy – he’s a fan of baubles, and of murdering small animals, and as long as nothing interferes with those cat-activities, he’s fairly happy. That said, he also enjoys trying to educate Kellen in the ways of the world, with a distinct lean toward solving problems by disembowelling them. Acerbic, he may be, but Reichis leaps off the page as a convincing portrayal of a person who isn’t also a human. Over the course of the text, he exhibits a bit of personal growth, bringing his team mates a little further into his heart. But in the meantime, his dialogue is sharp, witty, and often hilarious, and the action sequences he appears in are have a penchant for kinetically charged brutality which kept me turning pages.

Ferius is Kellen’s other mentor, a traveller with a set of alchemical pouches, cards that are both prophecies and weapons, and her own line in dry repartee. Where Reichis is the personification of the id, Ferius is calmer, more collected. She has her own goals, and a certain enigmatic magnetism. Quite what drives Ferius has remained unclear, but in the interim she serves as a solid counterpoint to Reichis, and as one of the few people around Kellen who seem prepared to let him realise his potential, rather than have him enact some scheme of theirs.

Having spoken about Reichis and Ferius, I just want to take a moment to say that the dialogue here is absolutely pitch perfect. The banter has that amiable edge to it, as colleagues and friends take swipes at each other. Where it’s more serious, the emotional payload is raw and convincing, and threats of violence come freighted with depth and weight that gives them serious menace. In either case (and indeed in the more standard everyday chit chat as the characters go about their business) the language absolutely scintillates, and the rhythm and texture of the dialogue goes a long way to keeping the pages turning. That it is (much like in De Castell’s Greatcoats series) by turns hysterical and genuinely emotional and honest is a great help too, of course.

Kellen is our protagonist again, and I have to admit, he feels spot on as a teen conflicted about his place in the world. The coming-of-age tale is in full flow here, as he steps into a world which is fairly confident that he isn’t special. Being on the run from his own people, and not entirely willing to share who he is with the world, Kellen is rather occupied trying to work out who he, well, is. Or rather, who he wants to be, now that he’s out from under the constraints of his society. There’s a part of Kellen which is a sulky, surly teen, but there’s a score of moral choice there as well, and the steel of adulthood slowly becoming visible beneath it all. Quite who Kellen is I’m not entirely sure, and he isn’t either, I suspect – but watching him try and work that out, deciding what his own principles and morals are, and what they’re worth, well, it makes for an intelligent, sometimes troubling, but always interesting read.

The plot – well, no spoilers here. I will say that it rumbles along at a reasonable pace though. There’s an assortment of trickery, thievery and fast talking. There’s even a little bit of magic, here and there. The stakes, as ever, are high, both personally and in a wider context, and there’s a tension and sense of consequence which ties up with the stellar characterisation and cracking dialogue to keep the pages turning. Is it worth reading? Oh yes. Our trio are always at their best when they’re in hot water, and they’re definitely there this time. This is a worthy successor to Spellslinger, and if you were wondering if the sequel could be as good, I’d say you can now stop wondering, and start reading. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The New Voices of Fantasy - Peter S. Beagle (Ed.)

The New Voices of Fantasy is a collection (edited by Peter S. Beagle) of some of the best short fiction from ‘up and coming’ fantasy authors. There’s some Nebula and Hugo award nominees and winners amongst these stories – and if awards aren’t the only indicator of quality, still they’re suggestive. The work as a whole is of a very good standard, and there’s some interesting themes explored, and questions asked – and, occasionally, answered.

There’s a range of stories here, from the hard-edged sentiment of Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth”, where Vlad the Impaler struggles to relate both to the modern world, and to his family, to the lyrical modern mythology of Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, or the quiet secrets and gentle romance of Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing”. Given there are nineteen stories in the collection, there’s always going to be some that fit a particular reader more than others, but the overall quality is very high. I won’t go through them all, but there are definite highlights.

I have a lot of affection for Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – a young woman who feeds off negative emotions is slowly drawn towards monstrous acts. Wong portrays a fragile, confused, powerful woman, unsure of who she is and wants to be – and the sacrifices she’s willing to make whilst working that out.

“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” from Sarah Pinsker is a piece of fantasy in the modern day, exploring why people are prepared to take risks, to fall with and for each other. In this case, the fall is literal, as inhabitants of a town leap into a possibly bottomless pool. Not all of them return, but the exploration of why people would jump in the first place is compelling and emotionally evocative.

Ben Loory’s “The Duck” is a heartwarming piece, ostensibly about a duck who falls in love with a rock. The other ducks are perhaps less than supportive of this decision. The piece is a pleasant allegory, exploring what it means to fit in, or to deliberately not do so. It wants to examine what people are willing to do for each other, and for love, romantic and otherwise. It’s likely to raise both a chuckle and a smile or two.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is an enjoyablu whimsical piece where the buildings of New York are both sentient and mobile. It’s a love story of architecture, with a thirties thread running through it. The protagonist, at least nominally, is a waiter in one of the buildings, who is also on the lookout for romance in this Valentines Day modern fable.

Those are, of course, just a sample. There’s more here, from the wry, ironic and often darkly appalling “Here Be Dragons”, tracking a pair of con-men in a sword-and-sorcery world, now trying to fit back in to village life with their wives and children, to the travelogue-esque “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”, a story which is putatively a description of a small mountain society, but which also explores the ideas around power, formation of narrative and colonialism.
As I say, there’s probably going to be some stories here which you find better than others, but the sheer diversity of work on display here, and the excellent overall quality, make this a collection that’s certainly worth exploring.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence - Michael Marshall Smith

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence is a new standalone novel from Michael Marshall Smith. It’s something of a coming-of-age tale, as the young Hannah Green travels with her Grandfather and the Devil (yes, the actual Devil) in an effort to hold the seams of reality together, and help her parents work out their relationship.

Hannah is the young girl whose existence is apparently so mundane. She lives in a world of routine – of trips to other parts of the state, in the back of the car whilst her parents talk. Of school – lessons, bells, and so on. It’s a universe of certainty, where each day holds close to something of the previous. That routine is shattered when Hannah’s parents decide to stop living together. Smith manages to give Hannah a unique, persuasive voice. She’s only eleven, and so lacks some of the context that an older reader may get, as her parents relationship gently fails. But she’s bright, inquisitive, and not afraid to ask questions – and if there’s an innocence there, it never grates. There’s some great characters floating through this text, but Hannah is probably the most challenging, and the most convincing – a girl thrown into situations she doesn’t entirely understand, determined to make the best of them, to be treated as if her opinions matter, and do the right thing. 

Where Hannah is a gentle and amusing protagonist, her parents are something else entirely. Smith paints a picture of a relationship which isn’t in crisis, per se, but in slow decline. There’s an energy to it, a sense of individuals struggling to define their emotional connection to each other – or redefine it. If Hannah’s character is one of the highlights of the text, this relationship – febrile, built on memories and now in flux – is another. The silences, the justifications, the sense of drifting further apart, of quietly needing different things, is well-crafted and feels genuine. 

Then, of course, there’s the Devil. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a nice person. Still, as Hannah and her family have layers, so does this personification of malice, whose efforts to work out why he’s no longer as powerful as he should be  are entangled with Hannah and her family. The Devil’s straightforward, politely expressed spite is a gem – each appearance mixes polished banter with an aura of lethality. The Devil is joined by an “Accident Imp”, also described as a talking mushroom, which attaches to people and gets them into, well, accidents. As a foil to the Devil’s polish, the imp is a gem – avuncular, chatty, aware of its low status in the Devil’s er…organisation – and prone to mishaps of its own. There’s a warm comic timing between the two, and the imp’s interactions with other people are equal parts hilarious and charming, inhabitant of Hell though he is.

Along with Hannah’s grandfather, a man with a penchant for machinery and mystery, this motley collective make up a thoroughly enjoyable cast. The frustration and emotional devastation of Hannah’s parents is palpable and real, at least as much as the whimsy and determination of Hannah herself, the Devil’s temper and penchant for overwhelming force, or the accident imp’s surprisingly insightful banter. 

That they operate, mostly, in the real world is helpful – the vistas of Nothern California are lovingly described when required, and the small town life which Hannah leads really does seem to come alive as one meanders through it alongside the story. From a multiplicity of coffee shops and forests, through to the environs of Hannah’s home, each environment feels both strange and familiar, coming off the page with vivacity and verve.

The plot – well, no spoilers, but I think it works rather well. Hannah’s journey is one which encompasses both an effort to save the world, and one to understand her family. Both these threads are fascinating in their own right, and where they wend and intersect with each other, it becomes impossible to stop turning pages. This is a story of a journey, and of a family, as much as it is one of demons, ancient pacts and talkative mushrooms. I’d have to say that these, and the sheer imagination deployed, make this book one that is very much worth picking up.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Back soon...

On holiday for a couple of weeks.
Normal service will resume on the 30th!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Infinity Wars - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Infinity Wars is the sixth collection of short stories in Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Infinity’ series. I’ve read several of the others, and found they contained some good stories, so I was quite hopeful going into this one. There was a decent mix of authors who I was aware of and those I’d never read before, which always helps.

Infinity Wars is about the future of war. The scope ranges from alien invasions at interstellar distances, down to the human cost of pulling the trigger. In some ways the environs can be familiar – people wading through muck and blood, or in the cold darkness of outer space. In others though, they can be strange or alien – soldiers driven by their subconscious, or government agencies weaponising a climate grown more ferocious after global warming. The stories in this collection look at war across the scale – and provide an imaginative, inventive window into one of humanities oldest pursuits. 

It’s not all explosions and space battles. There’s some great character work going on as well. Nancy Kress gives us “Dear Sarah”, a letter sent home by a soldier now part of an unpopular military – which also touches on the issues of personal and cultural identity, on prejudice, and on the feeling of what is right. There’s a unique voice there, and a sense of personality which grips you as the pages keep turning. Or Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon is not a Battlefield”, which gives us a woman who was once a soldier on the moon, reliving the grace and beauty of her youth, and the dreams which shaped her as she returns to an earth which is less than forgiving. There’s soldiers as heroes, and as bureaucrats. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Perfect Gun” gives us a richly cynical mercenary, someone accustomed to making the amoral choices, whilst working within a ship powered by an AI. The latter becomes perhaps more personable as the tale unfolds. The former is charmingly unlikable, but entirely believable – a person out for themselves, unashamed and unafraid. If you’re looking for characters to shape these stories, then you’re in the right place. Warfare has always had the capacity to break or shape humanity – and the characters here have been exposed to the kind of pressure that moves them, shifts their centre, and lets us explore a raw humanity beneath. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t some storming plots as well. I absolutely love Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armory”, where several tired, scarred and wounded men try and talk their way past an Armory AI, in a putative effort to stop an alien invasion. It’s a delicate piece on the costs of war and what happens to those who remain – and also carries an urgency, a sense of the kinetic, a high-stakes story. There’s a race against time, and the consequences for failure are dire. It’s an absolute page turner, and also one with a serious emotional punch. Then there’s the creeping horror of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship”. Here our protagonist is asked to pay the cost to infiltrate an enemy craft and bring it down before it can cause incalculable harm. The risk, though, is assimilation into the collective of the enemy. It hits all the right beats – there’s an organic tension, the smell of something dead or alive in the air, and a growing awareness from the reader that our narrator could become what she’s set out to oppose. It’s a story about loyalty and hard choices – and that kept me turning the pages. 

In the end, this is another solid entry in Strahan’s “Infinity” series. It looks at the lies and truths of war, the mental and physical joys and costs. There’s plenty of humanity on display here – the darker, stranger parts, and the virtues we cling to when everything else is lost. There’s also the strange, the weird, the wonderful and horrifically alien. So if you’re looking to explore some new authors, or want to think about humanity and its conflicts of the future, then this collection is worth your time.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Imposters of Aventil - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Imposters of Aventil is the third in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “Maradaine” sequence of novels. The author has also written several other series in the same universe – and if you’ve been following those, there’s some crossover here.

Aventil is one of the districts in the city of Maradaine. In comparison to others that we’ve seen in previous books, it’s rather prosperous. There’s a university, packed out with a large number of well-heeled students – aspiring lawyers, magnates of tomorrow, and the occasional wizard. The streets are fairly clean, and if the money of the University is one reason, another in is because Aventil’s crime is organised, but also fractured. There are several different street gangs, all with their fingers in separate pieces of Aventil territory, and each with their own history and grudges with each other.  That said, they all deeply resent intrusion into that territory from the outside – and will band together to savage interlopers. They’re insulated by a police force which is more lethargic than actively corrupt –unwilling to rock the boat, start trouble, or indeed finish it.  Aventil is, in its way, thriving – money moves and everyone has an interest in a stable neighbourhood, and as a result it has a cosmopolitan and socially active feel. This is especially true of the University, which sees wonderfully insular, with its own politics and problems, looking out on the rest of the neighbourhood from a bubble of privilege you can almost see rising off the page.

The characters…well, there’s the infamous Thorn, of course, and his gang of merry followers. Then there’s Inspector’s Rainey and Welling, brought in to investigate murders, and trying to chase down the Thorn. Alongside them, there’s our connection to the Aventil street gangs, who also happens to be tied to the Thorn. Also a small horde of side characters. I think my only complaint here is that given the smorgasbord of characters present, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with all of them. It’s great seeing the crossover between different aspects of Maresca’s worlds, but I think we could have done with a text twice the size to give them all room to breathe.

Still, the characterisation is solid – especially for Minox and Welling, whose cool competence, and incisive intelligence mixes well with troubled consciences and icy pragmatism. Those two pretty much own any page that they’re on. The Thorn and his gang, on the other hand – well, I need to go back to the earlier books to really get the context of their relationships, I think. But coming to it fresh, there’s a sense of history missing; I was able to get a sense of what tied the characters together, and it all worked, but I suspect that the deeper context from previous books would have helped immensely. Still, they each get their moments to shine. There’s a sequence that felt reminiscent of fight club halfway through the book which really shaped one of the Thorn’s accomplices for me, for example – in their reaction to danger and courage in the face of adversity. They also have a sense of privilege which seems to gradually deflate as the story goes on – as the stakes rise, and they run afoul of meddling inspectors.

They’re joined by our eyes in the gangs. This one was easier to come to without the context, really – a lone actor, of sorts. He’s a man struggling with old loyalties and old curses; an internal monologue turns these over for the reader, with a genuine voice, and a tone that seems tired of the life that’s led this far. There’s loyalty and bravery there as well, and a sense that the centre can not hold. It’s a stark contrast to the Inspector’s view of the criminal fraternity of Aventil as thugs and menaces – noting that there are costs and consequences, that gang work is violent and sometimes ugly, but not stripping away the essential humanity beneath. This is one whom I’d follow again – to see where he ends up, if nothing else

All of these characters are thrown together in a melting pot, as the Thorn appears to go on something of a murder spree. Execept of course that he hasn’t, as far as he knows. Maresca has form in this area – a slow burning plot, with investigations, discoveries, false leads and revelations, leading to an explosive conclusion. He doesn’t disappoint this time either. I was turning pages to work out exactly what was going on, trying to understand what drove the murders, who was behind them and why – and then, as that started to gel together, kept turning pages to see what would happen next. It’s a sharply observed investigative thriller, this one, in a mature and well crafted fantasy world.

Is it worth reading? I suspect if you’re new to Maradaine, you might want to go back to the start of this series, or to the start of Rainey and Welling’s adventures; it works as a standalone, but definitely benefits from exposure to the rest of the series. If you’re already a follower of the Thorn, I’d say pick this one up.